I have debated with myself for some time about writing this article. It may prove to be somewhat controversial. However, I finally decided that I would write it and that perhaps those of you who strongly agree with me may be moved to action and those of you who strongly disagree with me may also be moved to action. So, if this column moves you to action, then it has accomplished its purpose.
The U.S. Department of Labor is proposing to change child labor laws pertaining to agricultural workers. There are deaths and injuries that occur every year on farms and ranches across the U.S. Those individuals wanting to change the laws are doing so with the intent of protecting children from potentially dangerous situations. I cannot disagree with their motivation. I certainly do not want to see children injured or killed in a tragic farm accident. However, I do not believe a group of Washington, DC bureaucrats know enough about farm and ranch life to write a set of rules that will protect your children from farm accidents without seriously impacting your way of life. I believe each of you know best how to teach and train your children to be safe while they work with you on the farm or ranch.
The proposed rule changes do not apply to children if they work for their parents on a farm/ranch owned by their parents. However, if there is joint ownership with other relatives, if the farm is incorporated, even if the shareholders are family, or if the parents are themselves employees then the new proposed rule would apply. The proposed rule changes apply to "young hired farm workers," defined as:
1. 14- and 15-year-olds who are NOT the children of the farm owner or operator;
2. 12- and 13-year-olds who work on the same farm where their parents are employed; and
3. Children under the age of 12 who are employed with the written consent of their parents, on a small farm where no employee is required by the Fair Labor Standards Act to be paid the minimum wage.
The major rule changes are that:
1. No young hired farm workers under the age of 16 can operate any power-driven equipment (there is an exception to this after the youth has taken a 90-hour training course provided by your government-run public school);
2. Prohibiting young hired farm workers from doing almost all work with livestock in any confined space (corrals, chicken coop, barn stall, etc.); and
3. Prohibiting young hired farm workers from using electronic communication devices while operating power-driven equipment.
I see rules 1 and 2 as having the biggest impact on your farm/ranch lifestyle.
If you are concerned about these proposed rule changes, you can make public comments at www.regulations.gov (Please identify all comments submitted in electronic form by the RIN docket number 1235-AA06). Mail can be addressed to Wage and Hour Division, U.S. Department of Labor, Room S-3502, 200 Constitution Ave, NW, Washington, DC 20210.
Now it is time for me to get on my soapbox and rant for a few minutes. If I offend you, feel free to stop reading and then you will have no complaint. I grew up on a family-owned ranch. I was driving haying equipment when I was 8 years young. At either 9 or 10, I know I drove hay equipment for other ranchers that were not family members. I also worked in confined spaces with cattle. I have been stepped on, kicked, head butted and shit upon. I know I was fortunate that none of these incidents resulted in serious injury. But, I don't think that was pure luck.
My parents and grandparents taught me to never walk behind even our most gentle horse; I knew that the otherwise tame cow could be quite nasty right after she had calved; and I knew that you wore good shoes (boots) not flip-flops when you went to work. I also learned that as I got older and stayed out later on some nights, that the cows still needed to be fed at the same time the next morning; I think we call that responsibility. I did not have to be taught about the "birds and the bees" in some government-mandated sexual education program because I observed that process on the ranch and learned to respect life as I witnessed calves, colts and other animals being born and saw the tender care provided by their mothers and felt the heartache when one of these animals would not survive.
Circumstances changed for me as I began to raise my own family. I was no longer on the ranch. I struggled to find meaningful jobs for my young children to do that they might learn some of the same lessons I had. I was able to move out of town and have a few acres and have a large garden and sweet corn patch. I marveled when my 6-row (children) planter was working efficiently. However, as they grew older and needed jobs to earn money, learn responsibility, and find the joy in a day's labor well performed, I wished they had opportunities on a farm or ranch. There are few jobs that they can work at that the well-meaning government has not already forbidden.
As I observe many young teen-age youth with no job, I see a negative result. They are more likely to become bored with life and turn to other friends who are equally bored. That often leads to criminal mischief at best and drugs, sex and gang-related behaviors at worst. So my question to you, Department of Labor bureaucrat, is farm employment more risky than gang membership? Which heals quicker, a broken bone from a farm accident or an STD from a sexual accident?
Perhaps some well-meaning parents, who can't find work for their children, spend outrageous amounts of money on sports, music, or other summer camps to keep their children occupied. This is all well, but some of these youth grow up thinking the world owes them a good time; owes them whatever they want and they never realize they actually have to work to get what they want. Some of these youth grow to young adulthood and can't get a job, or won't take a job because it is too hard. They go occupy a park somewhere and demand that those who have worked need to give to them who have not worked.
I will end my rant now, before I have everyone fired up. There are risks in life. I would rather let youth work, knowing there are some risks involved, than take away those opportunities and face the risk of a generation who doesn't know how to work and doesn't see the need to learn.